First Tasting: Belgian Dark Strong (Beer #41)

December 19, 2012 by Jack

Nearly three months ago a couple friends and I did an experimental brew. We developed a recipe for a Belgian Dark Strong Ale, then got together one Sunday to all brew the same recipe at the same time. We then each oxygenated as we saw fit, pitched our own choice of yeast, and followed our own temperature schedules. Our wort was all nearly identical prior to pitching yeast. Same OG, tasted the same, etc. Fermentability of the wort probably varied due to our different brewing systems. The resulting beers are shaping up to be quite different from one another. I’d like to do a side-by-side-by-side tasting with their beers some time down the line. For now, here’s some early tasting notes on my batch.

Vital Stats:
Target OG: 1.109 Actual OG: 1.115
Target FG: 1.014 Actual FG: 1.032
ABV: 11.1%
Color: 23.2 SRMĀ (Calculated)
Bitterness: 41.0 IBU (Calculated)
Yeast: Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity (the Westmalle strain)

Aroma

Sweet, rich, complex brown-bread-like malt and prominent dark dried fruit esters (fig, prune, dark cherry, raisin) up front, followed immediately by well balanced spicy phenols suggesting star anise and allspice. Some perfumy floral notes. No hop aroma. Very pleasant and inviting. No diacetyl, DMS, fusels, or other off-aromas.

Appearance
Deep ruby red to brown with a large, smooth, tan-colored head that lingers. Nearly brilliant with a very slight haze.

Flavor
Bold, complex malt profile with massive spiciness. Abundance of dark fruit as in the aroma, only more pronounced. Very sweet, approaching cloying. Drinkable in that I’ve had commercial beers this sweet, but not as enjoyable as it would be if it were 8 gravity points or so dryer. Low-medium bitterness that would balance perfectly if the beer weren’t quite so sweet. No diacetyl, DMS, fusels, or other off-flavors.

Mouthfeel
Very full, syrupy body. Medium-high carbonation. Strong, warming alcohol carries into the finish, but is not hot or burning.

Overall Impression
A very rich, complex, malty beer with tons of “Belgian” character in the form of fruity esters and spicy phenols. All the aromas and flavors are well balanced – except for the sweetness. The beer is far too sweet, which is a shame because it is otherwise wonderful.

This is by far my best attempt at any Belgian beer. The malt profile and yeast character are well balanced, complex without being muddled, and the flavors all sing loudly and in harmony. But there’s the one guy in the back playing tuba and it’s obviously his first time – the beer is just too sweet. It should have finished up in the high teens but it stalled out in the low 30s. It actually slowed way down in the 60s, but I was able to coax it along for a few more days before the yeast called it quits at about 1.032.

My plan for this batch is to transfer most of it to a three-gallon carboy with a couple ounces of oak chips and pitch some Brettanomyces Lambicus. I’ll bottle the rest and cellar it. The brett should dry the beer out significantly while adding further complexity in the form of tart cherry, wild, barnyard notes, and notable oak (from the oak, not the brett). It will take 6-12 months to complete and should turn out pretty good. If not, it will be a good learning experience.

I plan to brew this recipe again, changing only the process to get it right next time. I will adjust my expected efficiency upward to aim for an OG of 1.100. I will mash at 149°F to make a more fermentable wort. I will add a second shot of O2 about 8 hours after pitching. Finally, I will add the table sugar and amber Candi syrup after we’re well into fermentation.

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